Bangladesh priest disappearance casts pall over Pope Francis visit

Vehicles pass by the flags of Bangladesh and Vatican City ahead of the visit of Pope Francis in Dhaka on Wednesday. — AFP

DHAKA — A Catholic priest has disappeared in Bangladesh, police said on Wednesday, as the Muslim-majority country stepped up security ahead of a landmark visit by Pope Francis that follows a rise in militant attacks on religious minorities.

Walter William Rosario, a 40-year-old priest and headmaster of a Catholic school, went missing on Monday in a village in northern Bangladesh where suspected extremists last year hacked a Catholic grocer to death.

Gerves Rosario, bishop of the nearby city of Rajshahi, said he believed the priest had been kidnapped and that Catholics in the region were deeply worried.

“He was organizing for around 300 Catholics to travel to Dhaka to see the Pope and attend his holy mass. But his disappearance has marred their joy. They don’t want to go to Dhaka any more,” he said.

News of his disappearance comes as Bangladesh tightens security in the capital Dhaka ahead of the arrival on Thursday of the first pontiff to visit Bangladesh in more than three decades.

Police in Natore district said they had launched a major search for Rosario after his family reported him missing.

“He has been missing since late Monday. His mobile has been switched off,” local police chief Biplob Bijoy Talukder said.

The family received a phone call from someone using the missing man’s number to demand a ransom, but Talukder said police believed this was a hoax.

They have not ruled out the possibility he was abducted by extremists, who have carried out attacks on religious minorities in the region in the past four years.

Since 2015 at least three Christians, including two converts from Islam, have been hacked to death in attacks blamed on the militant Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

Bikash Hubert Rebeiro, the priest in Bonpara village where Rosario grew up, described him as a “good man” whose disappearance had cast a pall over the pope’s visit.

“Our joy is gone,” he said. “Everyone in the village is shocked. His elderly mother has being crying non stop.”

Rebeiro said Rosario’s family was friendly with the relatives of Sunil Gomes, the Catholic grocer murdered outside his shop last year.

Christians make up less than 0.5 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people and have for centuries lived in harmony alongside the Muslim majority. But community leaders say a rise in extremism has strained relations.

Bangladesh authorities have escalated security in Christian areas of Dhaka in recent days as tens of thousands descend on the capital for an open-air mass on Friday.

On Tuesday police said they had killed three suspected militants in a raid on a house where they found hand grenades, pistols and bomb-making materials.

“The pope’s visit is a matter of honor for us. We are organizing the highest level of security for him,” police spokeswoman Sahely Ferdous said.

The three-day visit will be dominated by the plight of more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled ethnic unrest in Myanmar and taken refuge in Bangladesh. — AFP